The Big Red Apple?

Brooklyn Bridge | Photo by Laurent PCB

New York City DSA has taken on an ambitious set of electoral campaigns for the 2020 cycle, which will culminate in the June 23 primary elections. Our slate of campaigns – running the gamut from State Assembly to State Senate to the United States Congress – represents perhaps the largest coordinated set of socialist electoral challenges in generations.

The challengers for State Assembly include Phara Souffrant Forrest, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, and Marcela Mitaynes, who bring decades of experience in tenant, community, and labor organizing to these electoral campaigns. Jabari Brisport, running for State Senate, has been a prominent DSA organizer since the organization’s resurgence in 2017, and has been on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter uprisings here in New York City. Samelys López, a challenger for Congress in the Bronx, has experienced the violence and instability of capitalism firsthand, and comes to her campaign with a wealth of electoral organizing experience as well. And NYC-DSA has also endorsed the re-election campaigns of State Senator Julia Salazar and Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But as exciting and personally inspiring as these candidates are, socialists know that our engagement with elections must go beyond the “cult of the candidate,” and instead focus on using electoral campaigns – and the public offices that come with victory – to actively build socialist and working-class confidence and organization. That is the heart of a class-struggle electoral strategy, leveraging the power and political legitimation that come with elections to tie together movements in the streets and workplaces with a broader challenge to capital within the state itself.

There are two elements of this NYC-DSA slate that are worth pointing out, since they offer key lessons in the purpose and value of class-struggle electoral campaigns.

First and foremost, because all of these candidates have deep roots in organizing, they have been using their campaigns to engage working people in their districts around broader fights. While the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up obstacles for these campaigns – it is more difficult to build the grassroots armies of canvassers that DSA has become known for – it has also opened up new opportunities for organizing. All of our candidates have been involved in on-the-ground solidarity organizing during the pandemic, including the largest NYC rent strike in a century, campaigns to pressure hospital management and state authorities to provide PPE for healthcare workers, and engaging in community-based mutual aid work.

In the midst of the ongoing uprisings in defense of Black lives and against police violence, these socialist candidates have been on the front lines of the action. They have been using their platforms to bring unfiltered views from the protests themselves, to amplify clear demands to defund the NYPD and fund our austerity-hit social services instead.

The second factor is the very fact of a coordinated socialist slate. NYC-DSA created the “DSA For the Many” slate structure to help craft a coherent platform of demands, messaging, and fundraising across the campaigns. This type of collective campaign architecture is crucial, because it helps build socialists’ capacity for independent engagement in election campaigns moving forward. And in more subtle ways, it also helps push back against the wishful thinking and hyper-focus on individual savior-candidates that many progressives fall back into.

While these candidates are all individually inspiring, both in their messages and their personalities, if we are serious about building independent political power, or developing the groundwork for a party-surrogate, we need to build the institutions and structures of class-struggle elections that go beyond individual candidates. These campaigns – like our other mass campaigns and solidarity actions – have helped build the reach and capacity of New York City DSA, bringing members from a variety of political caucuses and perspectives together to struggle in a common direction, as well as bringing new members into concrete organizing for the first time.

It seems clear that the political dynamics and potential outcomes of these elections will be heavily influenced by the combination of pandemic, economic crisis, and uprisings against racialized police violence. At this point, however, it is unclear exactly what that impact will be.  After election day, socialists will have the opportunity and the responsibility to analyze those impacts with clearer hindsight.

But until June 23rd, DSA members across the country can help put socialists in office by phone-banking for or donating to the NYC-DSA slate! By keeping up pressure in the streets, in our workplaces, and in the halls of state power, we can take up our task of building a working-class socialist movement that can challenge capital on every front.